Clai Lasher-Sommers was 13 years old when her abusive stepfather shot her in the back with a hunting rifle on a snowy day in 1970. The wound took an immense toll on her body, mind, and psyche. Even though Lasher-Sommers has had to give up skiing and other outdoor hobbies, she stays as active as she can. A few years ago, she started an organic farm, where she grows vegetables, herbs, and flowers.
Roughly 80,000 people survive a gunshot wound each year. In March, the Trace launched a survey in an effort to fill the deep gaps in understanding about what happens to shooting victims who live through their injuries.
After taking the survey, Lasher-Sommers shared with the Trace how the shooting shaped the trajectory of her life.
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That day, I’d gone to play at a friend’s house. His family owned a small farm and was harvesting beef. I remember my friend’s mother saying, “Don’t let Clai see this, she’s never been exposed to anything like this.” We went into my friend’s bedroom, and I heard the sound of the steer being shot.
When I got home, it was late afternoon and dark. My younger brother and I heated up Beefaroni for dinner. My mother and my stepfather had been drinking. He started yelling, screaming, fighting, and beating up my brother. Then he came after me. He did what he would often do: Take his gun and put it under my chin and pin me to the wall. When he let me down, I went to my bedroom and my mother said, “I think he’s really going to shoot you this time.” I had my hand on the doorknob when he shot me. He used a .30-06, a high-powered hunting rifle. My body flew up in the air, hit the floor once, bounced up, and then hit the floor again.
After you’re shot, there’s all this warm blood. My stepfather tried to put towels around me to soak it up. He also cut all the phone lines. We didn’t have 911 in those days—this was rural New Hampshire—so my brother ran to get help. It took maybe 45 minutes for the ambulance people to come and carry me out. There was a blizzard that night. I remember the sprinkling of the snowflakes on my face.
The hospital they brought me to didn’t have a trauma team that specialized in gunshot wounds. I learned that the bullet went through my back and came out the side, but it left behind shrapnel in my kidney and all through my body. The doctors performed two surgeries and left a huge hole in my back. Nobody there knew how to deal with a kid being shot. A psychiatrist came in once and showed me the Rorschach cards, and that was it. I never received any physical therapy. There was absolutely no counseling.
After the hospital, I went to live with my real father for a while. He was a photographer and introduced me to literature, jazz, the arts, which helped me through. But he couldn’t really raise me, so I became a ward of the state. I switched schools many times and lived in foster homes and group homes until I was 17. I just sort of drifted about.
It took me more than a decade to realize that I had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. I was directing a rape crisis center and read a book by Judith Herman, in which she compared Vietnam vets and women who had experienced domestic-violence situations. She discovered that both of these populations had the same symptoms—moments of panic, hypervigilance. For me, it was a breakthrough. I learned there was a term for “fight or flight,” which I would do a lot. If something went wrong, if there was any kind of conflict, I just left. If I was in a meeting and people critiqued me, I would leave. There’s still times when I do that. I just get so mad, and I say something and I walk out.
Along with PTSD, I’ve struggled with clinical depression. I feel like that’s affected my memory, my ability to retain information. I say, “I’m losing data.” Depression, childhood trauma—these are things that don’t allow you to live as long.
In my 30s I had a breakdown and was hospitalized for a week. During one group session, the therapist told me, “I want you to stand next to this chair and pretend that it’s your PTSD. You have to tell this PTSD what you are not going to allow it to do to you.” I remember screaming at the chair, telling it how it would be involved and not be involved in my life. I had to learn to walk beside my trauma. Now I can say to it, “Look, this is not a time when you can come in and fuck it up.”
Accessing mental health services remains a nightmare. I was on the waiting list to see a psychiatrist at the closest major hospital for more than a year before they said I could see someone. But I couldn’t wait that long, so I found a psychiatrist out of state. She checks in with me and prescribes my antidepressants and Klonopin for panic attacks. I see her once every three months, and it costs $250 an hour, out of pocket. I own and run a small organic farm, but it’s not profitable yet, so my partner helps me pay.
When you’re shot as a kid, you’re too busy thinking about how you’re going to stay alive. You don’t think about health issues that you’re going to have later on. I was shot at 13. I’m 60 now. Shrapnel moves over time; it works its way to the surface and out through your skin. I’ve had little pieces of it come out of my hand, my breast tissue, my back, and I’d have to look at that and remember. The damage is integrated into my entire body.
When I had my kids, I had very difficult labors because of the severe damage to my back muscles. The bullet tore through one of my kidneys, so I only have one fully functioning kidney. Because of that, I’m prone to bladder and kidney infections, and I can’t handle alcohol. I also have arthritis, severe osteoporosis, fibromyalgia. I really believe all of these issues are related to being shot. My doctor has told me not to ski. I can’t go on long hikes anymore. I had to stop doing these things, even though a lot of my friends can still do them.
The minute I was shot, choices were taken from me. I lost power over my own life. I wasn’t able to be really proactive and make decisions. I ended up pregnant with my daughter right around the time I’d been planning to go to law school. But because of my PTSD, I couldn’t handle the stress of going to law school and raising my daughter, plus my two sons, at the same time.
I think I would have been a really good lawyer.